A successful king is one who consolidates power effectively, faces and overcomes challenges that arise during and to his reign, and protects and develops his country – and by extension – his subjects. The challenges that Henry VII faced – a weak claim to the throne, Yorkist plots, financial problems, strained foreign relations – were mostly spillover effects of decades worth of divisive civil war between the houses of Lancaster and York for the English throne; but many were also merely perceived threats caused by Henry’s own paranoia that later manifested in the form of real challenges.
Henry’s first and most prevailing threat was his weak claim to the throne. His claim was through an illegitimate and far removed line, and other claimants included Edward the Earl of Warwick, John and Edmund de la Pole, and the sons of Edward IV.
This was what gave rise to numerous Yorkist plots to seize the throne through impersonation and misinformation. The first and least important of these plots was carried out by Lord Lovell, Richard III’s chamberlain in 1486, but failed.
Later, Lambert Simnel’s impersonation of Edward the Earl of Warwick with the formidable and politically significant backing of John de la Pole, many Irish chieftains, and 2,000 German Mercenaries funded by Margaret of Burgundy in 1487 was eradicated as a threat after his army was defeated at the battle of Stokes. Simnel’s punishment of being employed in the royal kitchens effectively conveyed that he and his plot was so insignificant it could hardly be considered a threat, thus giving Henry VII the upper hand in the narrative.
The most threatening of these Yorkist plots, however, was Perkin Warbeck’s impersonation of Richard IV, the son of Edward IV in 1491. Recognised as Richard of York by Margaret of York herself, Maximilian I of Austria (regent of the Netherlands and future Holy Roman Emperor), and by powerful nobility in both Ireland and England, he posed a greater threat than any other previous claimants of the throne had.
This culmination of both local and foreign support and recognition, and the support of Henry’s Chamberlain Sir William Stanley – the man who was the decisive factor in Henry’s victory against Richard III – proved to be a public embarrassment to Henry for over seven years. Though eventually captured in 1497, the power and influence that Perkin Warbeck was able to amass over these seven years was a considerable hindrance to the perception of Henry as a successful king, because it implied that he was unable to effectively and efficiently handle threats to the throne.
England’s instability caused by decades worth of civil war also led to unrest and a certain lack of confidence in the abilities of the king, and Henry gave into these ideas by showing his vulnerability in the form of heavy censorship. His insecurity became apparent when he started issuing proclamations against publications of prophecy and threatening that “all tale-tellers would be pilloried”, and through his establishing a permanent bodyguard of 50 archers.
To be considered a successful king, King Henry VII would have had to effectively consolidate his control of the throne and therefore England. To this end, he took many social, political, and economic measures – but many of these measures and their intentions left much to be desired. One of his most prudent actions was taking Elizabeth of York as his wife.
This went some way to placate the Yorkists whose bitter fighting for the throne against the Lancastrians had plagued England for over 25 years, as this marriage was a union of the two Houses. However, Henry’s paranoid nature that would soon reveal itself in far more damning ways further into his reign started to become clear in the fact that he was particular to have himself crowned as king nearly three months before his marriage to disabuse his subjects or nobles of the notion that he may have claimed the throne through Elizabeth, rather than of his own right.
In order to further establish his power as king, his coronation was one of unparalleled grandeur – certainly fulfilling his aim of surpassing Richard III in all aspects. Politically, King Henry consolidated his claim to power by calling the first Parliament of his reign in the first week itself, sending a clear message to subjects, nobles, and foreign countries alike that he should be treated with as much dignity and respect as any other king would, despite him coming from an obscure and possibly illegitimate background.
The nobility was another factor that King Henry had to contend with. He realised that as a king whose power came from usurpation, there was nothing stopping any other contenders from doing the same.
The most likely group of people who would pose a threat to the king in this way were the nobles, and Henry VII recognised this. He imprisoned many nobles such as the Earls of Warwick and Surrey in the Tower of London, and took it upon himself to curb their power and ability by such that they’d be too economically crippled to cause any harm or threat to his reign.
To this end he utilised Acts of Attainder – a traditional form of control that led to families losing the right to possess their land, causing economic and social ruin to them – more severely than any other king before him. He also used binds and recognisances to ensure nobles’ loyalty and obedience towards him. Bonds and recognisances meant that people were forced to be subservient to the king, or risk losing nearly all their assets to the king.
These schemes, though extremely harsh and reflective of “a terrifying system of penalties”, according to J.R. Lander, proved to be successful in incentivising absolute loyalty to the king as seen in cases such as those of Thomas Howard, and Thomas Grey. Between 1485 and 1509, 36 out of 62 noble families had given bonds and/or recognisances to Henry VII – an unprecedented number compared to only one peer during Yorkist rule.
In terms of serving his own self-interest, in this aspect it seems as if Henry was successful because he was able to consolidate unquestionable authority. However, putting an entire demographic in debt and lifelong bondage to him was reflective of his injustice and paranoia, and therefore is a strong point for the argument that Henry VII was not, in fact, a successful king. On the other hand, however, Henry VII was very generous in his patronage of nobles who had proved loyal to him, or who he thought were beneficial and willing to strengthen his position.
He rewarded nobles such as John de Vere, Thomas Lord Stanley etc., for their support before the Battle of Bosworth, and nobles including George Talbot, and Lord Daubeney on the basis of good service. Henry also established the Order of the Garter, the King’s Council, and the Great Council, thereby including nobles in decision making and policy such that they then couldn’t criticise the king for his decisions because they contributed to it.
His rigid and often extreme taxation and fiscal punishment of the nobles was only a cog in the wheel of his greater financial policy. Henry took the unstable, war-torn, and economically distraught kingdom of England and turned into one with huge reserves. This was mostly due to Henry’s offensive-only policy to avoid war as far as possible as war was most often the biggest drain on a country’s economy.
He had extreme, often unreasonable levels of taxation, a factor that was unconventional at the time as kings of his time were hardly ever too reliant or concerned about taxes. His extreme taxation schemes led to both the Yorkshire and Cornish rebellions as a result of peasants feeling antagonised and hard done by.
Therefore, though he increased annual income and English reserves exponentially, the backlash he received for it and the harm he caused peasants to outweigh these benefits. His financial policy may have been successful, but as a king whose duty was, amongst other things, to protect his people, he was unsuccessful.
While Henry contended with domestic threats and securing his position locally, he was aware that the far more harmful dynastic threats would be from foreign countries. Similar to the way in which Henry was more susceptible to usurpation because he, himself was a usurper, the foreign assistance that helped him gain power could very easily be turned against him and used by another to claim the throne in the same way Henry did.
Fundamentally, Henry’s belief was that a good foreign policy would bring him security, recognition, and prosperity. In order to achieve these and protect his kingship, his foreign policy objectives, therefore, were to avoid conflict with France; marry his son to a powerful country in order to gain more foreign support; eliminate claimants to the throne; and maintain trade, especially with Burgundy. The most important countries in Henry’s foreign policy were France, Burgundy, Ireland and Scotland.
Despite England’s ongoing feud with France since William the Conqueror’s invasion, Henry’s reign started off more or less on good terms with France, because having been exiled there during his childhood he’d made connections and built some level of trust. Just to be safe, however, he negotiated a truce with France till 1487, hoping that by that time relations with France would have been established to the extent that a peace treaty was not necessary to ensure good relations.
However, in 1487, in a vain attempt to prevent the duchy of Brittany being taken control of by France via the marriage of Charles VIII and Anne of Beaujeu, daughter of Duke Francis of Brittany, Henry found himself drawn along with Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor into war with France. He realised quickly enough that this was no way to secure his throne as entering his then impoverished and insecure crown into a war would only spell out disaster.
In 1492, he compromised by making peace with France and signing the Treaty of Etaples – which included the condition that France brings him dynastic recognition and, and pay him an annual fee of £5000 to keep him out of France’s affairs – a Treat that France was happy to sign as they was becoming more concerned with the Italian Wars. Henry’s foreign policy with France amounted to England losing Brittany – a humiliating loss – but also led to his dynasty being recognised and annual revenue increases.
Henry VII was one of the first European monarchs to recognise the importance of the newly united Spanish Kingdom, and arranged his son Arthur’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon in 1501– a marriage alliance that would enhance the power and recognition of the Tudor dynasty. After Arthur’s death in 1501 however, Henry was in a position to insist on Catherine’s marriage to his surviving son Henry, an alliance that Spain had to agree to as Henry held both Catherine and half her dowry, and they needed English support to defeat France.
The support that Maximillian and James IV gave to Perkin Warbeck from 1491 led to quarrels and hostile relations with both the Netherlands and Scotland, but the economic significance of England to the Netherlands enabled Henry to convince Maximillian to abandon the pretender and also conclude a major and long-lasting treaty of peace and freer trade along with commercial powers such as Burgundy, Venice, Florence, the Netherlands, and the Hanseatic League – the Intercursus Magna. It was more difficult for Henry to win over Scotland considering the two countries’ long standing hostility towards one another, but did so eventually by concluding a treaty of peace in 1499, and later forming a marriage alliance with Scotland by marrying his daughter Margaret to King James IV in 1502.
One of the most important foreign relation Henry had was with the nation of Burgundy. It had been an ally of England since 1435 – the time of Edward IV’s rule, and England’s main trading partner.
However, during Henry’s reign, he faced immense challenges from Burgundy in the form of Edward IV’s sister, Margaret supporting both Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck. Margaret’s vast influence as the widow of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy was what contributed to these two pretenders of obscure origin to cause so much longstanding trouble to King Henry.
As a result of Burgundy’s support of Warbeck in 1493, a quasi-trade war ensued, with Henry breaking off trade with Burgundy, and Philip of Burgundy retaliating with a counter embargo. However, with the signing of the Intercursus Magna bringing many commercial European powers together, Henry effectively and prudently brought an end to most of the animosity that existed between the two countries.
While Henry was successful in terms of bringing about peace with minimal warfare, he did lose a £324,000 loan to Burgundy when King Philip died in 1506. However, since this particular factor was out of his control, his overall policy with Burgundy was extremely successful.
That the king was, for the most part, able to avoid war was one of the most significant successes of his foreign policy in that it ensured minimum damage to the countries coffers and stability. However, expectations of a king at that time were to be fearless and gain glory through battle – and that his policy was purely defensive, though extremely wise, was not received well by his subjects.
While many of Henry’s policies were either unsuccessful or unpopular, there is compelling evidence to prove that Henry was able to fulfill nearly all his objectives as king well and efficiently. Therefore, Henry VII was a considerably successful king, despite his fallbacks.